— Ruckus in NA as PTI, others up in arms, encircle speaker’s chair
— Lawyers believe SC may strike down ruling party’s move
— President Mamnoon set to sign bill into law in a day or two
The federal government on Monday bulldozed the amended Election (reforms) Bill 2017 through the National Assembly amid ruckus as the opposition lawmakers tore copies of the bill and threw them at the face of National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq.
Given the Pakistan Muslim League-N’s (PML-N) majority in the lower house, it was expected to be smooth sailing. The protest was registered against a specific clause of the bill, which was being termed by the opposition and some legal experts as ‘person-specific’ aimed at allowing the tainted and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to get himself reelected as chief of the ruling party.
Legal experts believe that the reelection of Nawaz Sharif would be struck down if challenged in a court of law, “which is in contradiction to the spirit of the Constitution.” The bill was passed amidst a rumpus as enraged opposition lawmakers registered a strong protest against what they said was a law designed to accommodate a single individual – Nawaz Sharif.
Now the bill would land on President Mamnoon Hussain’s desk, who was set to sign it into a law in a day or two. Though the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) lawmakers registered a token protest, it was members of PTI, PML-Q and other smaller groups, which gave a ‘tough time’ to the speaker who read out the clauses in a haste to get the bill passed.
Opposition Leader Khursheed Shah and Shah Mehmood Qureshi strongly opposed the bill. After the speaker refused to allow Shah to speak, the opposition members began shouting anti-government slogans and also tore copies of the bill. Among the new laws introduced to the bill was an amendment to Section 5 of the PPO. The amendment allows every citizen, who is not a government servant to form a political party or hold any office of a political party.
Introduced during Pervez Musharraf’s era, PPO Section 5 (1) says that every citizen, not being in the service of Pakistan, has the right to form or be a member of a political party or be otherwise associated with a political party or take part in political activities or be elected as an office-bearer of a political party.
But the clause currently has a proviso which reads, “Provided that a person shall not be appointed or serve as an office-bearer of a political party if he is not qualified to be, or is disqualified from being, elected or chosen as a member of Parliament under Article 63 of the Constitution or under any other law for the time being in force.” That clause was omitted by the ruling party from the bill.
When the bill was passed in the National Assembly, it went unnoticed. It was only during voting on the bill in the Senate that opposition leader Aitzaz Ahsan brought the development to the notice of the House and proposed an amendment in the relevant law passed by the assembly. Aitzaz proposed an amendment to Clause 203(1) of the new election laws with a new proviso stating: “provided that the person shall not be appointed or serve as an office-bearer of a political party if he is not qualified to be, or is disqualified from being, elected or chosen as a member of the parliament under any law for the time being in force.”
Law Minister Zahid Hamid opposed the amendment, which led to the chairman calling a vote count. To the opposition’s surprise, Aitzaz was outvoted by one vote, with 37 for and 38 against, despite the government’s numerical inferiority. Addressing the House, PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that the Clause 203 of the legislation, which pertains to the eligibility of persons to hold office in a political party, was against the spirit of the Constitution.
He said that the clause pertaining to the eligibility of parliamentarians to hold party office was being removed solely to protect Nawaz. He added that omission of the clause ─ which states that any person ineligible to hold office as an MNA is also ineligible to hold the position of head of a political party ─ was contrary to the Constitution as it would allow a disqualified individual to take charge of political affairs of a party.
“The Constitution says that any person not qualified under Article 62 and 63 (cannot hold office),” Qureshi said, adding that the Supreme Court had set precedent on the matter by disqualifying Nawaz under Article 62(1) (f) in the Panama Papers case. Urging the government to reconsider the bill and include the omitted clause, he said that if the bill was passed in its present form, his party would approach the courts.
Shortly after the law minister presented the bill before the assembly, the opposition began shouting slogans against the proceedings and tore up copies of the parliamentary agenda. “The reality behind Clause 203 has been hidden from us,” Sahibzada Tariqullah said as he presented the proposed amendments to the bill. He said that it was condemnable that the legislation could allow a person who had been disqualified by the Supreme Court to hold office.
Awami Muslim League (AML) chief Sheikh Rashid Ahmed stated that democracy would suffer if the bill was passed. “This law is being passed for one person,” he said. “I am going to the Supreme Court,” he announced. “We know what games the ruling party are going to play in the country,” he said. Naveed Qamar also opposed the bill, calling the omitted clause as person specific. He called upon the ruling party to reconsider the move.
EXPERTS’ OPINION: Eminent jurist Justice (r) Wajihuddin Ahmed said that following the omission of the specific clause, the bill was in a direct contradiction to the spirit of the Constitution as it could benefit Nawaz. “Even tomorrow, this omitted clause can benefit Asif Zardari too who also faces the axe in corruption scams. Moreover, since the courts may also disqualify Imran Khan, this arrangement may benefit PTI too,” he asserted.
Asked if the PTI chief also faced a real threat, he said that the court may disqualify him to level scores with Nawaz Sharif. “The court may disqualify Imran (Khan) just to strike a balance with Nawaz (Sharif),” he asserted. He said that the passed bill was in a direct conflict to Article 2(a) of the Constitution which was enforceable under principles of policy.
He said that unfortunately politics was the only profession in Pakistan which did not put any conditionality and whosoever had amassed legal or illegal wealth could enter politics. Noted jurist SM Zafar said that the omission of the clause was person specific, which he said had reversed the amendment included in Musharraf’s era.
However, he said that it would be difficult for the court to strike down the law as it was not in conflict with the spirit of the Constitution or the fundamental rights of the citizens. He said that the one who would challenge the bill would have to prove in the court that the clause had been a direct confrontation to the spirit of the Constitution.
Advocate Hamid Khan said that it was wrong to assume that the passage of the bill will help Nawaz retain his top party slot. “The court may not strike down the passage of the bill as it was not in contradiction to the spirit of the Constitution. However, if Nawaz goes to be re-elected as chief of his party, his re-election may be struck down as the re-election of an ineligible person would be in a direction conflict with the spirit of the Constitution,” he concluded.